Toxic high poisons region
Methamphetamine, cheap to make and easy to buy, destroys the lives of those it touches
|Kathy Plonka - The Spokesman-Review|
Meth addict Tracy Miller, 34, cries as she sits in Shoshone County Jail. Her two children were placed with family members after she and her husband, Corey, were arrested for making methamphetamine in March.
Jonathan Martin, Mike Roarke and Angie Gaddy
- Staff writers
Look closely. At the rental house down the street, the backwoods cabin, the farm.
Methamphetamine is everywhere.
Dealers peddling "poor man's cocaine" have police scrambling. Addicts fill jails and overwhelm treatment centers. Families are destroyed.
"It's a full-blown epidemic," said John Grasso, a deputy prosecutor in Spokane County. About 80 percent of his cases now involve meth.
Meth has surpassed crack cocaine and heroin as the Inland Northwest's drug of choice. High-quality meth is a white, crystal powder. Users eat, snort or smoke it or slam (inject) it into veins.
A high may last 12 hours. Addiction can last a lifetime.
Unlike cocaine, which is imported, at least half the local meth is cooked by amateur chemists using volatile ingredients from hardware and pharmacies.
Police discover meth labs in scattered homes, trailers, storage units,
Laundromats, cars and back yards. The labs are often filthy, dangerous places soaked with toxic chemicals and strewn with garbage and addicts' used needles.
Just six years ago, Idaho police busted only three labs statewide. Last year, 66 labs were found in Kootenai County alone. Nearly half the drug treatment in North Idaho goes for meth.
The number of Spokane County meth addicts treated in publicly funded clinics rose nearly 2,200 percent between 1993 and 1999, from 22 to 503. Waiting lists are weeks long and public funds dry up before many users can get help.
Addicts vent anger and paranoia. Burglary, robbery, domestic violence and other crimes are strongly linked to meth use, police say.
"Meth is so overtly dangerous. The violence added another element to it that we didn't see with other drugs," said Idaho State Police Capt. Wayne Longo.
And the drug exacts high social costs. Children are found in nearly half of Spokane's meth houses. After a bust, the kids are taken into protective custody and parents rarely get them back because they can't give up the drug.
Meth also scars the environment. Many labs have not been cleaned, leaving houses and apartments soaked with hazardous waste.
Idaho's oversight of meth lab cleanup is so lacking that renters and home buyers have no guarantee their next apartment or house is free of dangerous meth-making residue.
`Feel like a superperson'
Just one hit, and meth can take over a life.
It happened to Michelle, a 38-year-old from the Tri-Cities. She shunned alcohol and drugs until co-workers at Red Robin offered her a line of meth, she said.
You earn more tips, they said; it makes you faster and it feels great.
Michelle began logging double shifts and still had energy to scrub the floor behind her oven with a toothbrush late at night.
"You feel like a superperson," said Michelle, who asked that her last name not be used because she's pulling a drug-free life together. "The clarity. The euphoria. You feel so great, you don't see how your life is falling apart."
Hers did, in stages. Two drug rehab sessions followed: one in 1994, when her family intervened; another in 1998, after a drunken driving arrest.
Paranoia set in. She avoided public places.
Then last year, Michelle's 12-year-old son found a mirror, razor, straw and white powder in mom's sock drawer. Fresh from a DARE class, he asked, "Mom, are you a druggie?"
Michelle lost her job in November and had a miscarriage in January. A two-week binge on eight-balls of meth provoked a nervous breakdown. She tried suicide and entered a Tri-Cities mental ward.
She's now in a Spokane drug treatment clinic and hopes to reunite with her two boys later this year.
Edgy, angry users
Entering a meth user's world is as simple as slipping onto a bar stool, or a bench at Spokane's STA bus plaza.
Spotting a chronic user is alarmingly easy. They're edgy, angry, pale from lack of food and sleep, their arms and legs spotted with sores, teeth yellowed and splintering.
Counselors and users say addicts keep among their own. Meth cooks get into the business to feed their habit or their friends', selling a few ounces to keep money coming in.
Bartering is common. Police say Daniel Vail of Greenacres kept two thieves fueled with meth during a 1999 spree of burglaries. In exchange, Vail allegedly got stolen leaf blowers, weed eaters and a screwdriver set. He was arrested in February and charges are pending.
The average addict is white, at least 32 years old, and is as likely to be male as female. Many hold regular jobs, but the nucleus of the meth subculture is the poor, lured by the drug's low price and long, strong high.
Teens still prefer pot, but schools report a steady increase in meth use over the past two years. IV usage among teens, while rare, is growing.
A $25 hit of meth can give "spun monkeys" or "tweakers" -- junkies deep in addiction -- a high that keeps them awake for days.
Prolonged use can cause heart problems, kidney failure and permanent brain damage. Even two binges can scorch the pleasure center of the brain, causing lifelong depression. Thirty-year-old addicts look 60.
Counselors link meth to schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Eastern State Hospital staff believe meth may be a reason for rising overcrowding.
The meth subculture is one of paranoia and weapons.
Neighbors complain about floodlights wired to motion detectors on the homes of meth addicts. Curtains are closed. Angry guard dogs are chained by the front door.
In July 1999, a woman opened fire on police from the roof of a Bonner County cabin. She was shot and killed. A man wired on drugs tried to flee by stealing a police car. Inside, police seized 50 gallons of meth-making chemicals and several pounds of the finished drug.
Pend Oreille County authorities in 1998 found a bomb-making factory and a gun tower decorated with lightning bolts and a swastika on property owned by meth makers.
Conspiracy theories abound among addicts.
"If someone buys a black car across the street, they're sure that the FBI is out to get them," said Sue Greenfelder, a Spokane chemical dependency counselor.
`There's so much out there'
Police struggle to keep pace with the epidemic.
Spokane city and county law enforcement agencies have started training officers to collect evidence from hazardous meth labs. They will no longer have to wait days for an overworked SWAT team to fly over from Olympia to bust a lab.
There were more arrests in Spokane County for meth during 1999 than for cocaine, crack and heroin combined. The trend is not slowing.
"There's so much meth out there," said Spokane Police Lt. Darrell Toombs. "The only thing that limits the number of arrests is manpower."
Meth is found through urine tests in nearly 20 percent of new Spokane County Jail inmates, more often than any hard drug, twice as often as heroin. Most meth-addled inmates are found with the drug in their pockets. They're arrested most often for burglary and robbery.
"In all the large-scale stolen property cases, meth has been at the center," said Det. Michael Ricketts of the Spokane County Sheriff's Office.
In Idaho, nine out of 10 drug cases handled by state police are meth-related. Officers rack up overtime on meth lab bust after bust, hoping to avoid being sickened by hazardous chemicals.
State police are adding officers in the five northern counties, but they concede they can't lock up everyone.
"We're not the answer to society's problems," Longo said. "Everybody has to take some ownership to it."
It's basic chemistry
Meth is easy to make - too easy, police say.
Recipes are found on the Internet and in the legendary underground Uncle Fester's cookbook.
Eighty bucks spent at a pharmacy and hardware store can buy ingredients for an ounce of meth worth up to $1,000.
Making meth is basic chemistry: plucking an oxygen-hydrogen group off and adding a hydrogen atom to ephedrine or pseudoephedrine - active ingredients in cold medications.
That's meth - a white powder more addictive than cocaine or heroin.
"This drug is a very jealous lover," Greenfelder said. "Think about leaving it, and it seems impossible."
Meth was carried north and east from California by biker gangs, truckers and migrant workers beginning in the late 1970s.
Police say half the meth used locally is imported, with Mexican gangs prominent in the trafficking.
Their labs are big - producing 10 pounds at a time. The meth is cut with vitamin B-12 to reduce purity and jack up profits, DEA officials say. Finished goods move through distribution networks originally built to carry cocaine.
Drug agents began to see "superlabs" in Oregon and Washington in 1998. Forty pounds of meth -- worth up to $400,000 -- had been manufactured at a site near Sunnyside, Wash., before it was raided in 1998, a State Patrol chemist said. That's a staggering volume for a drug sold in grams.
Cracking down on availability of meth-making chemicals has helped stanch the flow from superlabs, said Guy Hargreaves of the DEA meth monitoring project in Washington, D.C.
The other half of meth production - smaller operations known among users as "Beavis-and-Butt-head" cookers - more easily slip under police radar.
"It's a lot more difficult to fight small-time production," Hargreaves said.
A skilled small-time cook can produce drugs that are 85 percent pure. The drugs are often cooked and shared by a group of cohorts.
Nine manufacturing sites were discovered in Spokane County in 1998. Last year the count was 36; in just four months this year, it's 31. Statewide, the count has quadrupled since 1997.
North Idaho police raided 92 suspected meth labs last year - more than half the state's total in a five-county area with just 14 percent of Idaho's population.
In the woods and wheat fields
Social workers and police say meth's impact is worst in rural counties, where there are fewer resources to fight the epidemic. Prosecutors in Pend Oreille County said 17 of 18 criminal cases one week in April involved meth: dealing, manufacturing or stealing to buy more drugs.
Pend Oreille led Washington state in drug lab busts per 1,000 people in 1999, and is second this year, behind Ferry County.
"We've never had a rural epidemic," said Dr. Alex Stalcup of Concord, Calif., a national expert on meth.
In Shoshone County, where Idaho State Police busted 12 labs last year, the dockets are full of meth-related cases, Prosecutor John Cossel said. He and one deputy prosecutor handle those cases, and many others. There's no extra funding to help ease the burden.
"We're a poor county," Cossel said.
The wheat fields of the Palouse also are not beyond meth's reach.
Anhydrous ammonia -- a nitrogen-based fertilizer -- has become a key ingredient in meth-making. It's a popular target for thieves in wheat country.
Latah County Sheriff Jeff Crouch said small thefts of the fertilizer - three to five gallons - were reported two or three times each week last winter.
Burglars hit a chemical distribution plant, Wilbur-Ellis in Potlatch, so often that Crouch's deputies installed video cameras and started stakeouts. On March 22, deputies caught two Coeur d'Alene men with a scuba tank full of the fertilizer. They were armed with a sawed-off shotgun.
Victims and bystanders
As arrests pile up, so do the victims, many of them children.
Kids are found in nearly half of Spokane's busted meth labs, severely neglected, living in squalor, and their health in grave danger.
"There's a total lack of understanding (among addicts) of what can happen to their children when exposed to this," said Diana Cote-Smith, a supervisor with the Washington state child welfare department. "They lose the ability to interpret cause and effect."
Children's lungs are much more easily scarred than adults'. Social workers report severe bronchitis and lung problems in meth-lab children. Longer-term health effects are only now being researched.
Frustration is felt by neighbors as well. Harry and Elva Gloyn settled in Spirit Lake, Idaho, 17 years ago, after he fought off lung cancer. "We thought the air would be better for him up here," Elva said.
It was, until a meth lab moved in next door. Putrid fumes smelling like cat urine began wafting into Elva's bedroom, where she had been recuperating for months from knee surgery. "Oh, the headaches, terrible headaches," she said. Aspirin didn't help.
The fumes - and headaches - stopped when the neighbors went to jail. Only then did the Gloyns connect her pain to the smell.
"What's this stuff doing to me?" she said. "The public is so ignorant of this problem."
She's clean, but scared
Sara Griner understands the problem perfectly.
She began using meth at 15, and later cooked it. She quit a few times, but even after inpatient treatment, she couldn't stop using. Social workers took away her sons, 1 and 4, in September.
Now 22, Griner lives with a family in Cataldo, Idaho. She's been clean since December. She works a steady job, goes to church and sees her boys daily.
She wants to get her own place, but she's scared. The last time she lived on her own, a single thread tied her life together. It connected her friends, her hangouts and her habits.
It was everywhere. It was meth.
About this report Meth is so dangerous that you can get sick just by walking into a house where it was made. The drug damages users, the people around them - especially children - and the environment. The stories and pictures in this series are intended to reflect the devastation of meth. To fully document it, we've made an exception to our policy of not identifying juveniles who are victims of criminal activity. We hope to make readers aware of a world that may seem distant, but surrounds us every day.
AT A GLANCE Language of meth
The world of methamphetamine speaks a language of its own. Here are some words and terms.
Slamming: injecting meth. Produces the quickest high. Strong risk of disease from dirty needles.
Smoking: smoking crystalline meth, much like crack cocaine is smoked. Produces a fast high.
Snorting: inhaling meth, much like cocaine is snorted. The high is more gradual.
People who use meth
Tweaker, clucker, crankster, loker, sketchpad, skitzer, spinster, wigger.
Projer: a user who begins a lot of projects while high -- and often never finishes them.
Spun monkey: a user who has taken several successive hits of meth.
Crank queen, pass around, crank groupie: woman who sells herself to get meth.
Rec or spinner: recreational user.
High on meth
Jazzing, zipper, worked, woop chicken, twisted, spanked, pumped, pissed, ripped, lit, heated, gurped, gakked, "bob" (discombobulated), bachin.
A runner: a period of heavy meth usage. User may be continuously awake for several days.
Crash: the days after coming down off a runner. Users fall into a deep, almost comatose sleep.
Mattress drugs: depressants such as alcohol or marijuana, used when coming off a runner.
Biker or P2P method: the name for the first major method of illegally making meth, tied to outlaw motorcycle gangs. P2P refers to the chemistry of making meth, which was much more cumbersome and produced speed about half as potent as what is made today.
Nazi method: manufacturing meth with anhydrous ammonia and lithium batteries.
Red phosphorous method: relies on phosphorous from the striker plates from matchbooks or strikers for road flares and caustic chemicals such as lye and sulphuric acid.
Amp, crank, crystal, white crunch, albino poo, bomb, brown goo, brown sugar, devil's dandruff, drano, gonzales (i.e. Speedy Gonzales), hippie crack, kryptonite, lost weekend, nazi dope, nose candy, peanut butter, redneck heroin, sparkle, talkie, dummy dust, tweak dust.
Cristy, glass, hanyak, ice, L.A., quartz.
AT A GLANCE
1919: Methamphetamine, a stimulant, is developed by a pharmacologist in Japan. The drug alleviates fatigue and produces feelings of alertness and well-being.
1930s: Doctors begin using meth in the United States to treat asthma and narcolepsy.
World War II: Methamphetamine is given to Allied bomber pilots to sustain them on long flights. The experiment fails because soldiers become irritable and can't channel their aggression. Meth reportedly is given to Japanese kamikaze pilots, and perhaps to Nazi troops during invasions of Poland and Russia.
1945-1950s: Post-war Japan experiences the first meth epidemic. It spreads to Guam, the U.S. Marshall Islands and to the U.S. West Coast.
1950s: Still marketed to treat obesity, narcolepsy and sinus inflammation, "pep pills" or "bennies" are sold for nonmedical purposes. Some truckers, homemakers, college students and athletes pop pills to stay awake or keep active.
1960s: Doctors in San Francisco drug clinics prescribe injections of meth to treat heroin addiction. Illegal abuse occurs in subcultures such as outlaw biker gangs, which cook and use the drug.
1970: Meth, or speed, is regulated in the Controlled Substances Act; a public education campaign is mounted.
1980s: Drug treatment counselors see increased abuse among gay men. Mexican drug manufacturers begin bringing meth north of the border.
Late 1980s: New ways to cook meth appear. Some new versions are four to six times stronger. Greatest use is seen in the Southwest and West.
1990s: Meth use begins and grows in the rural Midwest. Some migrant farm laborers working for drug dealers are suspected of bringing the drug into rural areas never hit by a drug epidemic before.
1996: Congress passes the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act, which regulates mail order and chemical companies selling precursor chemicals. For example, people who buy large quantities of red phosphorous, iodine and hydrochloric gas must show they will use them for legitimate purposes. Law enforcement agents are allowed to track large mail order purchases of pseudoephedrine, another precursor chemical. Chemical supply companies are punished if they sell chemicals to people who make meth.
2000: In the Inland Northwest, and in much of the West, meth is the favored hard drug, surpassing crack, cocaine and heroin. It's still prescribed for some medical purposes.
To comment on the story, Jonathan Martin can be reached at (509) 459-5484 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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